The Life and Work of Umetaro Azechi

In October of 2014 I was honored with an invitation to speak to the Art Department at my Alma Mater St. Olaf College.  The subject of my talk had to do with the journey that led me to my current position as an Art Director at Funomena, but rather than lay out an instruction manual on how to get from point A to point B (which would be useless) I spoke largely about my influences; what was I influenced by or NOT influenced by that continues to evolve my aesthetic.  One of the major points I attempted to make was that one cannot grow as an artist if one is constantly referencing what has been done in one’s respective discipline.  In my case I had big dreams of working as a character designer in Animation.

A huge turning point on that particular career trajectory occurred when I enrolled in an Advanced Character Design workshop at The Animation Collaborative taught by my instructor and friend Chris Sasaki.  His design philosophy was contrary to what I had been told for years as a student specializing in Animation Design.  Rather than having us look at what was current in the world of Animation, Chris urged us to look beyond that at other art forms, and disciplines whether it be theatre, furniture design, photography, literature and (especially) nature… Everything was fair game.  Coincidentally, around this time my girlfriend stumbled upon a book at our local library on Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints.  The work of one artist in particular floored me.  His name was Umetaro Azechi.

Azechi is relatively unknown these days but he grew to prominence in the mid 1960’s and is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence now.  His story is as inspiring as his art.  He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist, but his family was poor and he wasn’t able to further his education beyond eighth grade level.  It wasn’t until he was 18 that he had enough savings to take his first formal art course by correspondence.  Living in the small town of Uwajima in Ehime Province on the Island of Shikoku didn’t lend itself to artistic exposure, so he moved to Tokyo and scraped out a meager living distributing newspapers.  While there he acquainted himself with a cadre of like-minded peers who formed an informal  group and dubbed themselves the “Seven Stars.”  It was the leader of this group who later provided Azechi with a job at a Government printing Office.  While there, he was exposed to the art of printmaking and took advantage of the opportunity to teach himself how to engrave.  In his spare time he continued to study art and found a mentor in Un’ichi Hiratsuka, a prominent printmaker/artist who invited him into his home and encouraged him to continue his pursuit of an art career.  The life of a woodblock print artist had to be very simple and meager especially during the Second World War, but to Azechi, the most important thing was the work.  He found acceptance as a serious artist when he finally exhibited his prints in several juried shows.  The acceptance of his work and the praise he received were enough for him to ultimately quit his job and become a freelancer.  

All the while Azechi also discovered his other passion, Mountaineering.  It’s important to note that Azechi didn’t just draw inspiration from other printmakers in his circle, he looked at the larger world around him, especially at nature.

“My roots are in the Country, and I like simple rustic work… I respect (Shiko) Munakata’s approach, and I agree with him that japanese artists imitate too much.  In my own case I think my lack of training saves me from that kind of thing.”  -Umetaro Azechi

Later on he would actually gain prominence as an avid mountaineer and he also made part of his living writing about mountaineering.  Oddly enough he only wrote one book on woodblock printing (a copy of which I happen to own).

His overall philosophy is one of learning to live with imperfection and with mistakes which encompases a large part of the philosophy behind our game Luna, so it was only appropriate to bring his work in as a major source of inspiration.  What I love about Azechi’s work first and foremost is how it evokes the spirit of its subject matter.  His prints are very rough and in many ways primitive, but his sense of design and storytelling is very honed and sharp.  Most of his subject matter is inspired by his many solo treks into the wilderness, a practice I have adopted; not just capturing the physical reality of a landscape but evoking its emotional reality.  It is this kind of design philosophy that I hope to bring to Luna… To me there is no separation between our psychological selves and the natural manifestation of those hidden emotions in nature.  Umetaro understood this in his own way and worked it subtly into his prints.  

Umetaro Azechi passed away in 1999 at the age of 97 after a long, happy and simple life climbing mountains and creating his wonderful rustic work.  

Earlier this year, there was an estate sale in San Francisco that liquidated a huge cache of Umetaro Azechi prints gifted by him to an Artist friend in the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to purchase a couple of original Azechi prints for my home studio that I hope to cherish and draw inspiration from for years to come.  

-Glenn Hernandez, Art Director for Luna